September 16, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
To attack Biden, GOP attacks free speech
Opinion editors are helping.
Let’s talk about a genre of political punditry that appears genuine and reasonable but has more in common with conspiracy theory than well-intended debate in the interest of democracy, intellectual honesty and the common good. On closer inspection, in fact, it’s clear these writers are modeling ways of rationalizing political decisions that have already been made. They are, moreover, demonstrating a total lack of caring about whether their “arguments” are plausibly right or wrong. Opinion editors have incentive to balance views, obviously, but they have no incentive to sort good faith from bad. They themselves don’t care if opinion writers care about the truth, because the business of journalism doesn’t care. It encourages and rewards venomous bullshit.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The genre I’m talking about was in wide circulation when the Democratic Party was searching for a new standard-bearer. Everyone envisioned a nominee who could unite the party while appealing to disaffected white Republicans, the balance being critical to amassing the majority needed to defeat the president. Bernie Sanders seemed to be the frontrunner. Op-ed pages were filled with dire warnings, apparently in good-faith, against the party choosing “a socialist.” The perspectives varied, but the conclusions were the same. Picking Sanders would guarantee four more years of Donald Trump.
Opinion editors have incentive to balance views, obviously, but they have no incentive to sort good faith from bad.
These arguments had almost no effect, fortunately. Joe Biden’s nomination was rooted in the preferences of pragmatic Black voters, in the south and midwest, more than the preferences of disaffected white Republicans. (Black Democrats saw Biden as a shield against white supremacy and other bigotries more than white Democrats favoring a progressive candidate, and they were right.) That these arguments had almost no impact on party decision-making allowed them to stay in circulation. Writers who said they’d vote for Trump if the Democratic Party picked “a socialist” are now saying the same thing: they’ll vote for Trump if the Democrats keep “being socialist.” You get the feeling it doesn’t matter what Biden does. The goal isn’t genuine engagement in free speech. It’s exploiting free speech to sow confusion, cast doubt and otherwise discredit the Democratic nominee. Moving the bar is what serial abusers do. Opinion editors don’t seem aware of their complicity in the gaslighting of trusting readers.
More importantly, opinion editors do not seem aware that this genre of punditry, however much it might appeal to their need for balancing an array of political views, does not care whether it’s plausibly wrong or right. Caring about the rightness or wrongness of an argument means caring about the practical consequences of it, which means taking responsibility for the integrity of the social relationships that constitute a community. In other words, caring about rightness or wrongness means caring about trust. Writers of I-was-for-Biden-before-I-was-against-him don’t care whether you trust them. They care instead about poisoning public discourse, making it harder for voters to make good choices, and thus improving the president’s chances of winning. Making all this worse is these “arguments” are seen as respectable. They’re more like dangerous conspiracy theories, though, and opinion editors should see them as such.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Conspiracy theories are not just crazy cult conniptions. They are the rational result of people deciding to sever previous obligations to the democratic process and the common good, because the democratic process and the common good are getting in the way of their political goals. For many now welcomed into the GOP, it’s no longer possible to win by arguing the Democrats are right or wrong about this or that policy. Reasonable good-faith arguments are insufficient. (Reasonable good-faith arguments, moreover, demand sharing space with political opponents deserving annihilation, not respect.) Conspiracy theories not only create boogeymen that justify any means of destruction; they attack the ways by which the enemy maintains an advantage: the persuasive power of free speech. Undermine free speech. Undermine the enemy.
As I said before, QAnon “believers” don’t care whether their conspiracy theory is true. All they care about is bringing to mainstream attention the allegation that the Democrats, and by extension Joe Biden, are part of a secret cabal of pedophiles and cannibals conspiring to bring down the president from the inside of the federal government. The conspiracy theory, in other words, is merely a convenience that, among other goals, legitimizes political violence in a society that normally shuns political violence. In a very real sense, all Republican rhetoric is conspiratorial. Biden is a Trojan Horse for the radical left. The Democrats tried stealing the 2000 election. Jamie Harrison, Senate candidate, is hiding something in tax returns he won’t release. (He did.) Making the allegation is the point. Caring about whether it’s true isn’t.